A modern-day ‘magid’

Avraham Infeld urges the Jewish People to rally together and fix the world.

Avraham Infeld holds his new book at his home in Jerusalem (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Avraham Infeld holds his new book at his home in Jerusalem
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
DURING A RECENT visit to legendary Jewish educator Avraham Infeld in his Jerusalem home to pick up his new book, he shows me what he considers the best view in his apartment. It is a wall filled with photographs of his family, including his wife, Ellen (who hails from Woodbridge, New Jersey and whom he married in 1963), their four children, 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“I have dedicated my life to building families of all sizes and in all places where Jewish families live,” Infeld writes in his autobiographic account, “A Passion for a People: Lessons from the Life of a Jewish Educator,” written elegantly together with educational consultant Clare Goldwater. “These Jewish families are important to me because we are connected through our belonging to the Jewish People, and so my career has been dedicated to exploring, sharing and developing the concept of Jewish Peoplehood.”
For Infeld, Jews are not merely members of a religion or a nation, as they are traditionally defined. “The only concept that is, to my mind, inclusive of all Jews is that of Peoplehood, yet that term (amiyut in Hebrew) remains controversial, unfamiliar, and unused in many Jewish educational circles.” He cites his friend and teacher, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Gideon (Gidi) Shimoni, as teaching him that “an acceptable definition of People is an ethnic group or ‘ethnos’ – an expansion of the concept of tribe, which is, in turn, an expansion of the concept of family.”
In the preface to the book, Shimoni writes that Infeld, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1943, raised in a strongly Zionist family and made aliya when he was only 16 in 1959, is “what might be described as a contemporary equivalent of the traditional wandering magid.” The term conjures up the image of the age-old East European Jewish preacher, skilled in teaching Torah and telling stories – and Infeld is a storyteller par excellence, who has traveled extensively and served as an eloquent emissary abroad, preaching and teaching his educational doctrine of Jewish Peoplehood, Zionism and tikun olam, repairing the world.
Perhaps the best-known South African immigrant to Israel ever, Infeld is the son of European parents, Zvi and Olga, who met in Bulgaria and then moved to Johannesburg. His father, who was born in Galicia into a Hasidic family, was a Zionist activist and teacher, first in Bulgaria and then in South Africa, where he became director of the South African Zionist Federation. His mother was born in Poland and immigrated to Israel, where she was recruited by Zvi to be a Hebrew teacher in Sofia.
AFTER STUDYING Jewish history and Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and law at Tel Aviv University, Infeld embarked upon what became a lifetime career in Jewish education. Among his many achievements, he founded the Melitz Center for Jewish Zionist Education, and held leadership and mentor roles in key educational organizations such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Shalom Hartman Institute, Ulpan Akiva, Taglit Birthright Israel, and the Reut Institute for Tikkun Olam and Jewish Peoplehood, becoming what Shimoni calls “a foremost advocate of Jewish peoplehood as a guiding concept and educational practice for contemporary Jewry.”
Infeld’s flagship creation is Melitz, which works with Israeli and Diaspora youth to promote a pluralist Jewish identity and the centrality of Israel. He says he chose the name, the Hebrew acronym for Institutes for Jewish Zionist Education, from the biblical story of Joseph, whom the Torah refers to as the “melitz” helping his estranged brothers who had taken different directions in life to understand each other and communicate. Infeld ran Melitz for over 30 years before handing the reins over to his son, Ami.
Like Melitz, he says, every organization to which he devoted significant energy during his life has had an inclusive approach. “Peoplehood efforts must focus on the whole People, maximizing diversity as much as possible,” he writes. Under his father’s leadership, Ami Infeld says,“Melitz grew to be in the forefront of the development of educational tools and opportunities for Jews of all ages, producing unique and diverse programs and training, promoting a Jewish and democratic vision of Israel with strong connections to Jews worldwide.”
INFELD BEGINS his book with the moving story of how he found the grave of his father’s father, Avraham Meir, after whom he was named, in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Saying Kaddish at the grave was for him an “enormously powerful experience,” the culmination of a promise he had made to his father, and embodying his commitment to family and memory. “When I told one of my grandsons about this experience and how this visit to my grandfather’s grave somehow fit the pieces of my life together to form a coherent whole, he said, ‘Saba, now I understand what you do in your life. You build families. You build the big family and the small family. That is your profession.’”
His grandson, Infeld says, is right. He has devoted his life to his own family and the larger family of the Jewish People. In the book, “the protagonist is the Jewish People with a supporting role played by God.” In Part 1, he relates his childhood experiences that made him forever committed to the Jewish People. In Part II, he relates his attempts to put Peoplehood into action. Finally, in Part III, he discusses his hopes and dreams for the future of the Jewish People, including his model of “the 5 Legged Table,” his recipe for the continued significant renaissance of the Jewish People.
The five legs, comprising Memory, Family, Mount Sinai, Israel and Hebrew, “offers a recipe for how Jews can be active members of the Jewish People in today’s world,” he says, explaining each one of them in detail, which you will have to read the book to learn.
“This book is a story of my love for the Jewish People and so, despite the inevitable lack of clarity and fog that remains, I want to inspire other Jews to join me in helping this confused and confusing, obviously not uniform but hopefully unified, global but tiedto- a-homeland Jewish People make their own particular contribution to perfecting the world.”
The best part comes at the end, when Infeld discusses the future of the Jewish People and Israel. “The Jewish People today face many challenges that require strong leadership and creative approaches,” he writes, before proceeding to give his prescriptions for dealing with what he sees as the main challenges facing them: “Maintaining unity without requiring uniformity; ensuring that Israel remains the nation-state of the whole Jewish People; reorienting Jewish institutions so that they recognize their shared mission and respect their different tasks; addressing the challenge of intermarriage and assimilation; and fulfilling our unique purpose in the world.”
Without divulging too much of Infeld’s sharp analysis and recommendations, I found the last chapter the most gripping. “Israeli and Diaspora Jews today have no common project to unite them,” he laments. “There is so little (if anything) that we do together; our worlds and interests are so different.”
He continues, “Our relationship sometimes reminds me of an empty-nester couple who, after years of raising their children together, are left with no common core and begin to question why they share a bed. We, the entire Jewish People, need to find something to keep us together.”
In the past, Israel and the Diaspora won many battles together by taking Jews out of Yemen, Syria and the Soviet Union, and building a state, he says. “These were all shared projects that Israeli and Diaspora Jews worked on together,” he writes. “Today, these problems have, thankfully, been solved, and we are left with nothing to tie us all together, not even the State of Israel.”
Infeld’s answer? “Tikkun Olam, the concept of repairing the world, is, I believe, an issue around which Jews from all over the world can unite.” For Infeld, tikun olam is far more than making sandwiches for homeless people or volunteering at a retirement home, as worthy as these actions are. Instead, it is “systematic, strategic, and far-reaching and creates new ways that the Jewish People can work together to fix the evils of the world.”
Like Martin Luther King Jr., Infeld too has a dream. “I have a dream that one day the Jewish People will receive the Nobel Prize for Tikkun Olam! Is there any point in being Jewish without aiming to improve the world?” According to Infeld, “God created an incomplete world, and it is our job to complete it.” He then issues a passionate plea to the leadership of the Jewish world, in Israel and beyond, “to promote and strengthen the opportunities for Jews to be involved jointly in Tikkun Olam, in the name of and involving the entire Jewish People.”
Among the reviewers of the book, Infeld has received praise from leaders of all streams of Judaism. On the jacket, he writes: “Feeling great about being a part of the Jewish People is a wonderfully complex and sublimely enriching condition. It may also be contagious – read this book with caution and a smile.”
It sets the tone for a book that is profound and passionate, yet humorous and enjoyable. Like any great teacher, Infeld is fun – and his short but punchy book is a must-read for anyone interested in the Jewish People.